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Lecture combines art and mental healing

Social worker Jane Hesser discussed her use of empathy to connect to her patients and artwork

rtist and psychiatric social worker Jane Hesser spoke about how her artistic work influences her clinical practice at last night’s lecture installment in the Creative Medicine series.

Hesser spoke to an audience of about 30 people in the Pembroke Center.

“The process of healing and the process of making and studying art are about creating meaning — you build it, and build it and build it again,” said Hesser, who works as clinical care coordinator at the Women and Infants Hospital of Rhode Island.

The subject of empathy — which she defined as a “leap of imagination” into another person’s experience — took center stage as Hesser described the parallel experiences of relating to artwork as well as to patients.

Though it has serious clinical utility, empathy does not always come easily, Hesser said.

“I thought I was going to be a super-connector,” she said, describing her early ambitions in psychiatric school. “Well, I had to surrender that fantasy very quickly — on day one.”

While “super-connecting” may be beyond realistic expectations, Hesser said clear benefits result when empathy is part of the clinical interaction between doctor and patient. Positive results include higher patient return, clinicians obtaining better information and decreases in clinician burnout and litigation, she said.

But by the same token, empathy can only take a doctor so far, she said.

“You don’t want the person who can pull your boat to shore to be in the boat with you,” Hesser said. “You just want them to pull you in.”

Hesser spoke about the links she found between art and medicine — most notably the “mindfulness” both artists and clinicians exhibit.

“In both art and healing, you need to know what you’re working with,” Hesser said. “If you think you are looking at a puzzle, then there is a finite answer to the problem. But if you are dealing with a mystery, sometimes you are not going to get answers — you are going to get more questions.”

Both artists and doctors face this challenge of dealing with uncertainty, and it demands an extraordinary amount of stamina, she said.

Hesser illustrated her points by showing the audience artwork by three different artists, the most famous of whom was Frida Kahlo. Though these often disturbing pieces may force audience members to detach themselves, this detachment triggers self-reflection that ultimately results in a more meaningful ­— and empathetic — experience, Hesser said.

“I have to look away from this art,” she said after displaying self-portraits taken by artist Hannah Wilke as she underwent cancer treatment. “It reminds me of when I’m in a room with someone who is telling me a trauma story. There’s a part of me that shuts off, and I’ve cultivated that part, I need that part.”

Much of the art shown brought to light “the isolation of severe illness,” said Jay Baruch, assistant professor of emergency medicine and founder of the Creative Medicine Series.

Hesser also spoke about judgment — a quality she honed during art critiques while getting her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, she said.

“Judgments are not always the bad guy,” she said. “If I get too judgmental, I can’t work as an artist or a social worker,” but judgment can also serve as a catalyst for deeper self-reflection during an artistic or clinical process, she said.

Hesser urged the audience to be aware of their judgments and analyze them as clues that may lead to empathetic connections.

During the question and answer session following the speech, audience members noted the stark contrast between Hesser’s privacy-oriented clinical practice and the public nature of art.

“Both have their own anguish,” said Margaret Howard, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior and director of the Day Hospital for Postpartum Depression at the Women and Infants Hospital of Rhode Island.

A double concentrator in neuroscience and English, Adela Wu ’13 said she enjoyed learning about how clinicians can establish empathetic relationships with patients and was surprised to hear detachment and judgment portrayed in a positive light when it came to doctor-patient interaction.

Commenting on Hesser’s integration of art and clinical practice, community member Rachel Balaban said, “It’s all mixed together in this beautiful soup.”


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